Today Is the 15th Anniversary of the Death of the Most Famous Person in American Popular Culture. Here's the Movie or Miniseries About Him Someone in Hollywood Should Have the Guts to Make
My parents hated each other. They fought constantly. I don’t remember seeing a single loving moment between them. By the time I was 12, it was over. Splitsville. They divorced.
They both went on to have loving, fulfilling second marriages, and, fortunately, both my brother and myself were crazy about both of our parents’ second spouses.
Looking back on why my parents had ever gotten together in the first place, the expression ‘What were they thinking?” comes to mind. They were 15 years apart in age and didn’t seem to have any interests in common. They didn’t have similar senses of humor nor senses of life. Mom was a Democrat and dad was a Republican, with all the clichés that each of those labels imply.
The only thing I can remember them agreeing about was that Frank Sinatra was their favorite singer. My dad was a year older than Sinatra, and my mom had been one of Sinatra’s diehard bobby-soxer fans in the 1940s.
Today, May 14, 2013, is the 15th anniversary of Sinatra's death.
Given the fact that seemingly the only time in our house when my parents weren’t having monumental fights was when they were playing great Sinatra records from his Capitol years, he has always interested me. I loved his voice and found it very soothing.
As I got older I began to read more and more about Sinatra. Back in April 1966, when I was 14, Esquire published an article about Sinatra that I quickly devoured. It had the funny title of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and was a very long piece.
It was about Sinatra, the man. It turns out that this singer, who seemed to me to be the most sensitive of vocal interpreters, wasn’t such a nice guy. Yet he was clearly an iconic figure in American pop culture, for generations of both men and women. As a kid I found the contradictions of Sinatra very puzzling.
Here’s a short excerpt from near the beginning of the article:
“For Frank Sinatra was now involved with many things involving many people -- his own film company, his record company, his private airline, his missile-parts firm, his real-estate holdings across the nation, his personal staff of seventy-five -- which are only a portion of the power he is and has come to represent. He seemed now to be also the embodiment of the fully emancipated male, perhaps the only one in America, the man who can do anything he wants, anything, can do it because he has money, the energy, and no apparent guilt. In an age when the very young seem to be taking over, protesting and picketing and demanding change, Frank Sinatra survives as a national phenomenon, one of the few prewar products to withstand the test of time. He is the champ who made the big comeback, the man who had everything, lost it, then got it back, letting nothing stand in his way, doing what few men can do: he uprooted his life, left his family, broke with everything that was familiar, learning in the process that one way to hold a woman is not to hold her. Now he has the affection of Nancy [Sinatra] and Ava [Gardner] and Mia [Farrow], the fine female produce of three generations, and still has the adoration of his children, the freedom of a bachelor, he does not feel old, he makes old men feel young, makes them think that if Frank Sinatra can do it, it can be done; not that they could do it, but it is still nice for other men to know, at fifty, that it can be done.”
What I didn’t know when I originally read “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is that it would later be thought of as one of the best pieces of magazine journalism ever published, a benchmark of what came to be known as the New Journalism. It was written by Gay Talese. I recently re-read the piece, and it’s still terrific. You can read it if you click here.
Over the years I’ve kept reading about Sinatra. Most recently I read James Kaplan’s excellent 2010 biography “Frank: The Voice.” What made me want to read it was Michiko Kakutani’s review of it in The New York Times.
Kakutani wrote that Sinatra “provided the soundtrack for several generations of Americans trying to navigate the rocky shoals of romance and grapple with love and heartbreak. And he became one of 20th-century pop culture’s quintessential men of contradictions: the bullying tough guy whose singing could radiate a remarkable tenderness and vulnerability; the ring-a-ding-ding Vegas sophisticate with an existential outlook on life; the jaunty urbanite who could deliver a torch song like no one else. Fans could recognize his voice from two or three perfectly phrased syllables, and they knew him instantly from his style: the rakishly tilted hat, the coat slung over one shoulder, the Camels and Jack Daniel’s.”
Kakutani went on to note that Kaplan, in his book, did a “nimble, brightly evocative job of tracing the development of Sinatra’s craft, showing how he assimilated early influences and gradually discovered a voice of his own.“
And Kaplan did exactly that. Kaplan's a wonderful writer to boot, and I recommend his book to anyone interested in Sinatra.
But the facets of Sinatra that have really interested me over the years are the contradictions of the man, as so eloquently stated above by Talese and Times reviewer Kakutani.
And to read about those you have to read a firsthand account of what Sinatra was like. And there’s only one of those that’s any good: “Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra.”
Published in 2003 by HarperCollins, it’s a first-person account told by George Jacobs, an African-American who served as Sinatra’s valet, sometimes cook and right-hand man from 1953 to 1968. The book is written by Jacobs and William Stadiem.
What’s so great about the book is that it’s a no-holds-barred account of Sinatra and his inner circle for those 15 years. How candid? Check out this excerpt. Jacobs writes:
“As much as I disliked his father, that’s how much I was crazy about John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He was handsome and funny and naughty and as irreverent as Dean Martin. ‘What do colored people want, George?’ he asked me the first time he visited [Frank Sinatra’s home in] Palm Springs, not long after Mr. S and Peter Lawford [JFK’s brother-in-law] became bosom buddies.
“I don’t know, Mr. Senator.”
“Jack, George, Jack.”
“What do you want, Jack?”
“I want to fuck every woman in Hollywood,” he said with a big leering grin.
“With a campaign promise like that you can’t lose, sir.”
“You’re my man. Jack.”
“No, it’s George.”
“Who’s on third?”
“Pardon me, sir?
“Jack, goddamn it. Call me Jack. Or I’ll send you back to Mississippi.”
“Louisiana, Jack. They eat Catholics in Mississippi. They hate you worse than me.”
“And that was the way we’d go on, giving each other shit all the time, no master-servant games. He and Mr. S got along great. They had everything in common, charisma, talent, power.”
Then there’s this, the details of the final break between JFK, then president, and Sinatra. It was early 1962:
Sinatra had redone his Palm Springs compound in honor or JFK, including the installation of a number of new phone lines.
Writes Jacobs, “This was going to be Jack’s West Coast crash pad, for all the world to see.” But it didn’t turn out that way. Peter Lawford had to tell Sinatra that JFK was not going to be staying with Sinatra anymore.
“Lawford first tried to blame the Secret Service, saying it was a security issue. Then he finally admitted that it was a Frank issue and that Bobby [Kennedy] was the mastermind behind it. Mr. S. smashed the phone he was talking on against the wall. He went into another room and was able to get Bobby on the line in Washington. … Bobby basically told him we can’t have the president sleeping in the same house where [mobster] Sam Giancana had slept. And Mr. S. said JFK’s already slept here, so what’s the fucking deal. Bobby played hardball. He said it’s my deal now, and Jack ain’t sleeping there and hung up. There went another phone, smashed to smithereens. We were lucky to have had all those extra phone lines installed. I felt sorry for Mr. S. He was like the girl who got stood up for the prom, all dressed up with no place to go. He had spent a fortune redoing the house, just for JFK, and now the house was off-limits. … How could they treat their friend this way, he wailed to me, like a little kid nearly in tears.”
Jacobs continues that later that day “Mr S. went on the most violent rampage I had seen. Lawford’s clothes were ripped out of closets, ripped personally to shreds. His golf clubs were bent in half. Pat Lawford’s (JFK’s sister) makeup and perfume kit was crushed under foot. I followed Mr. S. around the house on his search-and-destroy mission, just to make sure he didn’t die of a cerebral hemorrhage, his blood pressure was so off the charts. I didn’t dare try and stop him, or even say ‘Cool it, boss. This ain’t worth it.’ He probably would have killed me.”
And then there were the women: Ava, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, Juliet Prowse, Lauren Bacall and the two Judys, Campbell and Garland, to name just some of them.
Jacobs even writes about a tryst between Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo that he was witness to at Sinatra’s compound when Mr. S. was out of town.
Though I’m always telling people to read Jacobs’ book, I hadn’t seen anything about it in the press lately until I saw this item in the New York Post’s gossip column Page Six about a month ago, on April 3, 2013: “A modern-day Rat Pack comprising Brett Ratner, Brian Grazer and Graydon Carter is in talks to team up on an HBO doc based on “Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra” by Ol’ Blue Eyes’ longtime valet George Jacobs, sources tell us. The project was once slated as a feature for Ratner to direct, starring Chris Tucker, but has now been reimagined as a TV doc, insiders said. However, others and an HBO rep said no deal is done with the cable network.”
I was disappointed to read the item, because it seemed to me the way to adapt the book is turning it into a movie (feature or cable) or a miniseries. I don’t know how one would do it justice as a documentary. Docu-drama, yes, documentary, no.
Then, on April 30, I read this item at Deadline.com: “Alcon Television Group, the television division of Alcon Entertainment, and Frank Sinatra Enterprises are teaming to produce an as yet untitled documentary about the life and music of Frank Sinatra to premiere on HBO. Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney will direct the four-hour miniseries docu described as an up close and personal examination of Sinatra, his life, his music and his legendary career.”
Was HBO going to do two Sinatra documentaries? Furthermore, the more I thought about it, was HBO, a division of Warner Bros., the company that owns Sinatra’s former record label, Reprise, really going to be able to produce, faithfully, any video or film version of so candid a book as “Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra”?
So I decided to try to contact William Stadiem, the professional writer who co-wrote Jacobs’ book. I don't know Stadiem, but he is a very talented scribe who holds two graduate degrees from Harvard, in law and business. He has also written “Marilyn Monroe Confidential” and “Moneywood: Hollywood in Its Last Age of Excess.”
I was fortunate to reach him by phone in the Los Angeles area. First, I asked him whether Jacobs was still with us, and he told me yes, that Jacobs, now in his 80s, still lives in the Palm Springs area.
Stadiem also told me he wasn’t exactly sure where any current negotiations were for the TV movie or documentary rights of “Mr. S.” He also wondered whether HBO would move ahead with two different documentaries about Sinatra.
Stadiem said he’d love to see the book made into a movie, “or perhaps, even better, a play.”
I hadn’t thought of that, but it could be adapted into a marvelous play for one or two
characters, or a full-blown cast. And then perhaps that work could be filmed.
Today, on the 15th anniversary of Sinatra’s death, the life and legacy of the man and his many contradictions -- let alone his music -- still resonates for millions of us.
It’s clear that for all his success, he spent most of his life like many of us. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, ever since he was born, Sinatra was desperately seeking shelter from the storm.
The TV Academy Gets Real, With a Night of Honors That Don't Get Nearly as Much Attention as the Emmys -- but May Be Even More Important
Some called the recent White House Correspondents' Dinner a “nerd prom,’ and that term also came to mind -- in a completely endearing way -- at the 6th Annual Television Academy Honors, held May 9 at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Known for presenting the Primetime Emmy Awards, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences decided in 2007 to move forward with a different sort of accolade that honors programs that inform, illuminate, enlighten and educate about social issues.
Academy Governor John Shaffner gets credit for creating the concept with former ATAS chair Dick Askin and Honors co-chair Lynn Roth. Shaffner and Roth started off the evening by chronicling the process and announcing that after six fulfilling years, they were passing the baton to new committee members.
This year’s honorees: “Hallmark Hall of Fame: A Smile as Big as the Moon,” “D.L. Hughley: The Endangered List,” “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” “Hunger Hits Home,” “The Newsroom,” “Nick News with Linda Ellerbee,” “One Nation Under Dog: Stories of Fear, Loss & Betrayal” and “Parenthood,” feted in a gala sponsored by Audi, Grey Goose and BV Vineyards.
Actress Dana Delany hosted for the fifth time, lightening things up right away by telling the duo to "get a room" as they left the stage.
"I've noticed some trends here. Almost all of the shows are fact-based. I guess you could call them good reality shows," she said.
Whether "The Newsroom" is fact-based could make for an interesting Aaron Sorkin-written soliloquy delivered by Jeff Daniels, as fictional cable news anchor Will McAvoy.
A real newsman with a four decade-long career, Steve Kroft of "60 Minutes,” presented Sorkin with the night’s first statuette. Kroft noted that the traditional journalistic values of fairness, accuracy and integrity are pitted against corporate bosses, the demands of a 24-hour news cycle and fickle audiences, even as the characters try to hold on to their jobs.
"The actors are much more attractive and have more interesting personal lives [than] people who work in the real newsroom,” he said, introducing a clip that showcased one of McAvoy's on-air soliloquies about the shifting ethics of the TV news business.
"Brevity is a challenge for me," Sorkin acknowledged, an admission that was met with laughter from the ballroom audience.
Producer Brian Grazer lauded "Parenthood,” and its showrunner Jason Katims for his kindness and generosity, and recalled how Katims previously had successfully made a TV series out of another of Grazer's films, “Friday Night Lights."
As that highly acclaimed show was nearing the end of its run, Katims wanted to try his hand at "Parenthood" -- although Grazer said it had already been tried with Joss Whedon and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Now, "Parenthood" is in its fifth season. In his speech, Katims talked about the pressures he felt about living up to the bouncy house poster that NBC had designed, even as he went in to pitch network executives an entire season that revolved around cancer. The show also deals with teenage alcoholism, unemployment, panic attacks, abortion and autism, among other topics.
Despite the difficult subject matter, he said the network was his biggest supporter.
"When you feel love in the Braverman family, it makes it sort of like a bouncy house,” he said.
The Food Network had never done a documentary before "Hunger Hits Home," which illustrates the serious problem of childhood hunger by focusing on three families that are having a hard time putting food on the table in this economic downturn.
"It's unconscionable that this should happen now. Part of it is due to the shame people feel about asking for help. The problems are solvable. The [anti-hunger] programs are there,” said producer Dan Cutforth.
Showing racism in a humorous way was the goal of D.L. Hughley's Comedy Central program. The actor said his motivation went back to the 1991 Los Angeles murder of a young black girl, Latasha Harlins, who was shot for allegedly shoplifting a bottle of orange juice. The shopkeeper was sentenced to five years' probation, while soon thereafter, he heard about a woman going to jail for kicking a horse.
Recalling the shocking dichotomy in punishments, Hughley broke down, after he had managed to crack a joke about three Jews and a black man, acknowledging the other producers of “The Endangered List” who joined him to accept the honor.
With all this heaviness, the evening’s program ended on a brighter note with kudos for “Hallmark Hall of Fame: A Smile as Big as the Moon,” a dramatization of the real-life story of special ed kids going to NASA space camp in Huntsville, Ala. It features actor John Corbett as football coach and special education teacher Mike Kersjes, who took them there after months of preparation.
With Corbett by his side, Kersjes said, "This is really about the triumph of the human spirit -- by kids who are underdogs and who were bullied.”
When you have Norman Lear and Carl Reiner in the house -- two of television’s most brilliant, legendary creators who go back to the original golden age of the medium -- it's assuredly going to be a night to remember.
Hearing from those two giants was the shot across the bow as the Writers Guild of America revealed its 101 Best Written TV Series in a two-hour event at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills on June 2, sponsored by TV Guide magazine.
Emceed by the witty and talented Merrill Markoe, the night was billed as a special tribute honoring seven decades of outstanding television writing and the writers who created some of the most memorable TV series of all time.
Writers get all the respect in television that they don't in film, but as Markoe noted in her opening remarks, after working long hours they're the ones you spot in the corner at wrap parties. There are also the ones with the driest senses of humor.
Before the countdown of the top shows began, Lear and Reiner regaled the sold-out crowd with anecdotes about Sid Caesar, Dick Van Dyke, Sheldon Leonard, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Larry Gelbart, among others.
"When the Television Academy called me to tell me that I would be inducted into their Hall of Fame along with Edward R. Murrow, Lucille Ball, David Sarnoff and Milton Berle, I called my mother, who said, ‘Well, if that's what they want to do,’” Lear recalled, in one of several stories throughout the evening involving what could diplomatically be called non-supportive parents.
Reiner flashed back to the genesis of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," which began as a program based on his life in New Rochelle, New York, called "Head of the Family," in which he starred -- until Leonard told him, "We'll get a better actor to play you." The rest is television history.
Reiner's comedy creation came in at No. 14 on the list, which was voted on by WGA East and West members, while Lear's groundbreaking "All in the Family" came in at No. 4.
In addition to Reiner and Lear, James L. Brooks (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi"), Gail Parent ("The Carol Burnett Show"), Steven Bochco ("Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law"), Matthew Weiner ("Mad Men"), Winnie Holzman ("My So-Called Life"), Vince Gilligan ("Breaking Bad "), Ronald D. Moore ("Star Trek," "Battlestar Galactica") and Steven Levitan ("Modern Family") took the stage to speak about their shows, answer questions posed by Markoe and kibitz with each other.
Bochco reminisced about going to war with NBC on "Hill Street Blues," which began its run in 1981 and went on to win four Primetime Emmy Awards for outstanding drama series, a record held by only three other shows: “Mad Men,” “L.A. Law” and “The West Wing.”
“The 1970s were like getting out of the 1950s," he said. "The success of ‘Hill Street’ opened the floodgates for drama, language, adult situations, ethnicity and urban landscapes. It was an opportunity to make a show that humanized cops and showed them as complicated people. Because it worked, everyone started doing it.”
Brooks had the crowd in stitches when he said that he was told early in his career by people who went unnamed that three things didn't work on television -- divorce, men with mustaches and Jews. He lauded CBS President Bob Wood, who ran the Eye from 1969-1976, as a game-changing executive who canceled popular shows of the corn-fed variety to put on programs including "M*A*S*H," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and “All in the Family.”
“Before that, on shows like ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and ‘Green Acres,’ the biggest problems families faced were a burnt pot roast with the boss coming to dinner or a dented fender," said Lear.
Parent recalled that she was warned that writers’ rooms were filthy, in terms of the language. "I thought that was a perk," she said. Of the 10 writers on Carol Burnett’s show, she was the only woman. Looking back, she called herself and Burnett rather meek, saying they didn't push feminism at the time.
Moving into the 1980s, Bochco said the decade was defined by empowered writers and the emerging trend of compelling television involving a story arc over time, which continues to this day.
Both Gilligan and Weiner discussed their journeys in getting their respective programs made, both of which deal with "difficult" subject matter, yet have garnered huge success on basic cable’s AMC.
No one was interested in Weiner’s script, he said, but he was determined to get it to David Chase, who then offered him a writer's job on “The Sopranos.” "It took six months to get it to David," Weiner said. "Four and a half years later, AMC made the pilot."
Gilligan spent seven years on "The X-Files” and said he didn't censor himself when coming up with the idea for "Breaking Bad,” even though he knew there would be only a few players who would possibly be interested, which he identified as HBO, Showtime, FX and TNT.
“TNT wanted me to change meth to counterfeiting," he said. "They were very respectful when they said no, but that's the second best thing you hope for from a pitch. If you don't get a yes -- a quick, respectful, no."
These shows earned enough “yes” votes to make the top 10: "The Sopranos," "Seinfeld," "The Twilight Zone," "All in the Family," "M*A*S*H," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Mad Men," "Cheers," "The Wire" and "The West Wing," of which “Mad Men” is the only one still unspooling original content.
The complete list can be found on the WGA website.
More than three decades after its debut created a seismic shift in the pop culture landscape, it can be very easy to forget that MTV still stands for music television.
That also makes it surprising to learn that 1,200 hours of music videos are aired each week across the Viacom family of networks, including MTV, CMT, and VH1, that reach 100 million homes in TV-land and 60 million online via digital and social screens. It's a universe that encompasses MTV Hits, MTV Jams, MTV Buzzworthy, MTV Hive, VH1 Soul, VH1 Tuner, CMT Pure, CMT Edge and Palladia.
That is the framework upon which the network is trying something new -- by going back to its roots and focusing on musical artists across a broad spectrum of genres and levels of experience.
It's a concept called the artist opportunity hub that has been percolating in soft launch/beta mode since the VMAs last fall. Basically, artists could come in and create platform pages for themselves on artists.mtv.com, artists.vh1.com or artists.cmt.com -- an “inside” network that has already received significant traffic and engagement with videos without any real marketing -- to the tune of 2.3 million visitors in April, according to comScore.
Now the model is kicking into a new phase and includes access to many other large-scale opportunities to reach a broad audience and to generate revenue.
First and foremost, there is the opportunity for artists to get their videos aired on the networks, which has always been a tricky process in the past involving record labels, managers, publicists or other music industry connections who have traditionally operated the star-making machinery.
MTV, VH1 and CMT’s music teams will evaluate videos based on the number of eyeballs and fan interaction on each artist’s page. Selected artists will receive an email that their video has been viewed and then will be notified when and where it will go into video rotation.
Much like the blind auditions on NBC's "The Voice,” where it's all about unfiltered talent, the process is more egalitarian than “who you know.” It means that music fans, especially tastemaker fans who rally around emerging artists, will play a critical role in helping to identify artists that are strongly resonating within different fan and genre pockets.
In a digital sense, it still is about who you know, as Shannon Connolly, the SVP of Digital Music Strategy for Viacom Music and Logo Group, explained to us.
“The more you drive people to your content, the more we listen to you, and that's how you get into our programs," she says. "If you can mobilize your fan base, that’s how we notice you.”
And it's not just about playing music videos. It's about having songs chosen that go into popular shows like "Awkward," thus providing another platform from which emergent talent can grow.
If that sounds like what happened with some unknown bands whose music was featured in commercials and elevated their careers, yes, there is also an advertising element that will come into play as the concept evolves.
"With the launch of this hub, we have the potential to work with brands to help find the artist that best suits their needs and goals and then create custom campaigns with tremendous scale that could play out across all of our platforms and screens," Connolly says.
Although the hub launched without a sponsor, she says having the “right” brands connect -- and you can imagine there are a slew of them -- is a huge part of the strategy.
“We believe it will be a primary part of the revenue stream for artists in the next 5-10 years. We have the platforms and scale to integrate artists into campaigns, and it becomes a really powerful opportunity,” says Connolly.
At the same time, she says that Viacom wants to stay focused on the artists, wanting them to feel there’s someone behind the curtain, that they’re not submitted into a black hole.
The corporate philosophy, Connolly explains, is that artists should get paid and participate in the revenue.
"The rev share model percentage of Spotify, YouTube and some of the others doesn't really yield payouts to artists that are meaningful. The industry purposefully is taking a rev share approach that isn’t sufficient," she says. "Because we’re advertising-based, we have other ways of making money. We will have a tip jar that allows fans to leave tips to artists. As for commerce, they'll be able to sell merchandise on our page. For us, it's about creating success stories.”
As for the fans, they will have several participatory opportunities coming up shortly that will demonstrate the digitally democratic nature of the new venture.
They will get to determine two musical acts who get a slot to play at the three-day Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, which runs May 17-19.
The festival’s lineup includes Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Stevie Wonder, the Black Crowes, the Shins, Public Enemy, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Kings of Leon.
“Working with Artists.MTV/VH1/CMT, we’re giving music fans an unmatched voice in giving two emerging artists this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play the festival,” said Shaul Zislin, founder of the Hangout Music Fest, in announcing the two winners as Americana group Banditos and folk/blues/pop duo Johnnyswim.
Reps for both bands say they’re incredibly grateful to the artist opportunity hub for providing the support, and the opportunity. Banditos came in through CMT and Johnnyswim through the VH1 platform.
Similarly, the opening act for country music artist Hunter Hayes at his New York City show in June will also be crowd-sourced. The list of potential opening acts will be narrowed down to ten, with the Grammy-nominated Hayes then personally selecting the opening act.
"The vetting process may change, but the intent is to be very valuable to the artists," Connolly says. “We’re going to learn as we go.”
A mobile app for the artists’ platforms is planned to launch this summer. Sounds like sweet music to the ears of artists -- and their as yet untold audiences.